Developing New Paragliding Sites
They say necessity is the mother of all inventions. Well, the same goes for developing new paragliding sites. 2021 has been a strange year for many reasons, one of which has been the weather. We had unusually windy days which meant that many of our regular East Bay (Vallejo/Benicia) ridge soaring sites were often blown out. Because of this, I was inspired to seek out new paragliding locations that would work in a bigger variety of weather conditions.
Like most paragliding pilots, we often like to fly the known and developed sites. Of course it’s easier to stick to the safe and the known spots. Personally though, for many reasons including distance and conditions, I’ve been looking for new sites since I started paragliding a few years ago. The process is tedious, it involves mostly stumbling around and looking at google earth for hours. I’ve only had one mild success with a strange site called Stoneman but I’ve learned a lot about wind and terrain flying, among many other things, in the process. Some of the details that follow may be technical, but I assure that the process has been exhilarating, terrifying and fulfilling.
The Search Process
There aren’t a lot of instructions out there about the process, and so I had to develop my own. I started looking for ridges that I thought were flyable on google earth. I figured any ridge running North-South should be a decent place to start, since our dominant wind directions here are West- East. Finding such ridges were easy, but I quickly ran into landowner issues. In my home area, most sites were owned or controlled by East Bay Regional Parks (EBRP). Sadly, EBRP is not too keen on unregulated paragliding (not too keen on regulated either), so I had to find places outside of their control. I scanned maps for hours and looked on the EBRP website for their maps. I checked the edges of their parks for what else was around.
My search was fairly limited to my home area. The previous closest site to my home in Antioch was Blue Rock in Vallejo, which is about a 35 minute drive without traffic. I decided to focus on areas closer to home, near Pittsburg, Antioch, Clayton or Vallejo. I found several city parks that could possibly work for kiting and then I found an obscure park in Pittsburgh that looked promising. When my wife suggested we go for a walk somewhere, it was the perfect opportunity to check the place out.
Scouting and Discovering Hazards
Upon reaching the site, named Stoneman, we quickly saw the potential. The whole area is full of hills and valleys. The site looked good for at least a small sledder flight but I could only guess what risks there might be since I was new to this “pioneering” gig. As any smart person would do, I asked my instructors about the site and assistance in checking it out. What I got from them were a couple decent principles and a whole bunch of analysis. Their 3 big rules were:
I think these are good principles for any new experience but especially important in developing new sites.
After kiting on multiple days in different wind conditions, I eventually felt comfortable enough taking short flights on lighter days in the west facing bowl. I had discussed the sites, showed pictures to instructors and thought about the hazards. In taking it slow, I only did a few flights and only when other people were present.
My first flights at Stoneman felt amazing, even if they were only 15-30 seconds long. It was so gratifying to launch at a site that I personally vetted out. Eventually, I flew off almost every direction from any reasonable area that I could find. Of my 250+ total flights, over 70 of them are at Stoneman and took place within 6+ months. Almost every time I go there, I find something new, learn something different, try something that I haven't before and the work of discovering my skills and the site’s use still goes on. Discovery is such a great feeling!
Stoneman is a useful but complicated little site with limited uses but it’s often usable when other sites are blown out. As my first pioneering attempt, I think we found a little gem. I encourage all pilots to take care of the sites we have and keep up the effort to pioneer new sites, whenever you can find them. I see this as a responsibility of all pilots to ensure that our sport continues to grow.